Prosecutor switches arena to fight Mafia ties with the EU

ROME — The June 6 to June 7 European Parliament elections will test the level of “Berluconism” in Italy, showing how strong support remains for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s values, image and political outlook.

But these elections will also launch a new breed of candidates turning to politics from other careers. These non-politicians are running as independents under the Italy of Values Party.

Italy of Values (IdV) is focusing its campaign on Italy’s declining reputation in Europe. They say recurring frauds and illegitimate use of European Union funds have triggered the negative trend.

Luigi De Magistris, a former public prosecutor from the south and an outcast of the Italian Judiciary, is one IdV candidate. De Magistris has lobbied the European Parliament for months, warning that the Mafia in Italy continues to steal European money.

“It’s a devastating criminal system,” De Magistris said. “The white-collar Mafia has penetrated the board of directors of companies that manage public money. They sit at the same table with entrepreneurs and politicians.”

De Magistris, who comes from a long line of judges, said his candidacy is inspired by the strong ties that hold politics, the Mafia and the judicial system together.

Five years ago, De Magistris opened an investigation implicating a wide network of businessmen and politicians suspected of embezzling EU funds. The money had poured into the region of Calabria for water purification, dumping sites and green energy projects. Even though $1.2 billion had been spent the previous decade, the coastline was still polluted.

“The European Union budget is structurally more vulnerable to frauds than a national budget would be,” said Alessandro Buttice of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). “Most of the funds are a form of help and are outsourced nationally, regionally and locally.” If the money isn’t used properly, Buttice said, “who is going to go check?”

Buttice said each country is responsible for monitoring EU funds and prosecuting those responsible when something goes wrong. But in Italy the law is not enforced equally.

When in 2007 prosecutor De Magistris added an acquaintance of his boss to the list of suspects, the head of the prosecutor’s office snatched the investigation from his hands. De Magistris acquiesced but ignored the underlying warning.

His next investigation would end his career. De Magistris’s famous “Why Not” case uncovered a network of more than 100 public figures and businessmen suspected of using EU and state funds in exchange for favors. The evidence also pointed a finger at then-Minister of Justice Clemente Mastella and put Prime Minister Romano Prodi under suspicion.

Minister Mastella demanded that De Magistris be removed from the “Why Not” case and reassigned to a different post.

“It was one of the darkest pages in the history of the Italian judiciary,” De Magistris said.

Without the power to prosecute, De Magistris finally resigned in March of last year and accepted an opportunity to run for the European Parliament.

De Magistris and other IdV candidates will boost their party’s votes to 8 percent in the upcoming European elections, doubling their numbers from the 2007 Italian Parliament elections, projects Italian agency IPR Marketing.

Throughout Rome, stacks of campaign posters of the left, center and right parties are illegally plastered on public walls or any available surface. IdV has instead launched a systematic campaign online through YouTube, Facebook and blogs.

The party’s leader, Antonio Di Pietro, led the most famous bribery investigation in Italy in the early 1990s. The investigation, called “Operation Clean Hands,” put Silvio Berlusconi — then only a top businessman — under inquiry for bribery and illegal financing of the Italian Socialist Party.

As history has it, Berlusconi entered politics with his own money, won the elections by campaigning on his three national TV channels and, more importantly, earned parliamentary immunity.

Today, Di Pietro has lined up 47 candidates, most of them hand-picked for their active roles in society, to contrast the Berlusconi ticket. But the injection of morality that Italy of Values is promising to bring to Europe will not earn it the majority of the 72 seats reserved for Italy at the EP.

Polls predict that Italians will remain enchanted with Berlusconi’s newly expanded party, called People of Freedom (PdL), which includes Clemente Mastella, the “Why Not” suspect and former minister of justice, as one of its candidates.

Experts say conflicts of interest and collusions with the Mafia won’t affect the results on election day. A majority of Italians are expected to vote for PdL. Similarly, the recent imprisonment of Berlusconi’s corporate lawyer, as well as the Italian leader’s ambiguous relationship with an 18-year-old aspiring TV star, seem to have left Berlusconi’s popularity untouched.

What benefits Berlusconi, said author and Italy expert Alexander Stille, is Italians’ disillusionment with politics.

“Berlusconi has been able to take advantage of incredibly high levels of cynicism that Italians have about politics," Stille said. “Things that would have destroyed other politicians in other countries have been survivable for Berlusconi.”

Italy’s wounded political system has, on the other hand, allowed a small party like Italy of Values to gain momentum, while the largest opposition party, Partito Democratico, is expected to lose 5 percent of the votes received in the 2007 Italian Parliament elections.

“There’s a lot of frustration with the PD,” Stille said. “I think that opposition feeling is trying to find a new channel.”

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